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Genre and the Grip-Lit Debate by Catherine Ryan Howard

Writing.ie | Magazine | The Big Idea
Catherine Ryan Howard by City Headshots Dublin

What do you associate with the word ‘transient’? The first time I ever went to New York I was barely nineteen and not yet schooled in the ways of the Savvy World Traveller. I booked the cheapest hotel I could find that was sort of in the middle bit of Manhattan, which turned out to be disconcertingly similar to the roach-infested flophouse Josh checks himself into in the ’80s movie Big. (TripAdvisor wasn’t yet a thing, okay?) My overriding memory of the place is the flickering neon sign outside that promised transients welcome. I had no clue what that meant but after a couple of nights, I could take a guess: ‘No fixed abode? No problem!’ A few years later I found myself working in a swanky resort in Orlando, Florida, a city that prides itself on being one of North America’s biggest and best convention destinations. We divided our guests into two categories: business and – here comes that word again – transient. But now a transient was a leisure guest, i.e. anyone who checked into the hotel who wasn’t there on business. We used the term all the time amongst ourselves because it helped us to do our jobs, but we never ever said it in front of a guest. Thinking back to my first time in NYC, I could understand why…

My favourite bookshop is Waterstones on Patrick Street in Cork. I’ve been going there for longer than I can remember. It’s a large space with many sections: new books, Irish interest, history, cooking, crime/thriller, biography, reference, sport, travel, science-fiction/fantasy, art, films & TV, gardening, children & YA, a few others I’ve probably forgotten and then general fiction, where authors are shelved alphabetically. This is probably more than the average bookshop, but you get the idea. If I’m holding Gone Girl in my hand and my task is to shelve it, I know exactly where to go: crime. I’d put Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret in General Fiction under M. But as I shelve it, I’m wincing a bit because I know that even though it has a bit of a ‘girly’ cover design full of greens and pinks, it’s tense and twisty and has a big reveal. Therefore, it’ll appeal to crime fiction fans. To me, it reads like a sort of crime fiction lite. Likewise, I know there’s people who won’t read Gone Girl because they never read crime, thinking it’s all serial killers, gore and autopsies – none of which interest them, and none of which appear in Gillian Flynn’s book.

Genre serves two masters – writers and readers – and it can serve them both well. I started reading Jo Nesbo because there was something very Stieg Larsson-esque about the first paperback cover of The Snowman (and a not-very-subtle blurb from The Independent, proclaiming him next in line to that very throne). I loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I loved The Snowman because it was what I’m always looking for: the same (i.e. Scandinavian, dark, dense) but different (how creepy is a snowman who appears outside your house but is facing in to your windows, eh? VERY CREEPY. Especially when as you’re reading it, it’s starting to snow outside.) So this Larsson association worked for me, the reader, but it also worked for Jo Nesbo. Instead of starting from scratch with the UK/Ireland reading public, his publisher could skip a few rungs on the ladder by comparing him to a bestselling author who already had a huge fan base hungry for more of the same. (This is why it pains me when authors bristle at the idea that they can be put in a genre. Yes, you’re a special little snowflake I’m sure, but presumably you’ve written a book because you’d like someone to read it, yes? Genres help make that happen. Think of them as a shortcut to sales.)

Although, with the sheer number of ‘Nordic Noir’ translations that we’ve been spoiled with since the Year of the Dragon Tattoo you could probably set one up, there just isn’t room in the average bookshop for a ‘LIKE STIEG LARSSON, WE SWEAR’ section. Luckily when it comes to promoting books, publishers and authors aren’t confined by physical shelf space. Genres can be divided into endlessly more specific sub-genres. Look at Amazon, for example. Will I ever forget the day my first self-published title, Mousetrapped, topped the charts in Kindle Books -> Non-Fiction -> Travel -> United States -> Regions -> South -> South Atlantic? I already have, because I had to go look that up.

Let’s just go back to our crime/thriller section for something slightly less ridiculous. I could divide the thrillers into things like tech-thrillers (Jurassic Park), corporate thrillers (Paranoia by Joseph Finder), medical, legal, spy… And crime into the aforementioned Nordic noir, domestic noir (i.e., the danger is already in your house, and let’s face it, it’s probably your husband), American noir, detective, serial killer… And, yes, the new kid on the block, griplit.

Yeah, I said it.

Here’s the thing: I love that there’s a term like grip-lit. I love it both as a reader and as someone whose job it is, from time to time, to convince other readers to buy a particular book. Because I want to read good books. I want to find more books that’ll I enjoy, always. And by continually narrowing down genres into subgenres and then into… sub-subgenres? Well, that helps me out.

I don’t tend to read what publishers call ‘women’s commercial fiction’ (think: the acceptable way now to refer to what might, once upon a time, have been called – whispers – chick-lit) which is what I thought The Husband’s Secret was when I encountered it first. I didn’t want to read it, because I didn’t think it was my kind of thing and life is too short to waste time reading books that aren’t our kind of thing. In the end, I picked it up on a trusted recommendation – and I loved it. But what if my friend hadn’t happened to mention it to me? I’d never have read that book, or Liane Moriarty’s other titles. Call it grip-lit though, and you’d have had my attention right off the bat.

Is it grip-lit? What does that even mean? In the past couple of weeks, the term – attributed to Marian Keyes – has been collecting some controversy. In an unfortunately named piece for The Pool (‘Grip-lit, and how the women in crime fiction got interesting’) the subgenre was defined as ‘female driven thrillers and crime novels where women are more than a body in the hallway’ featuring ‘fresh, more representative characters’. Hmm… In a concise and conclusive rebuttal in The Guardian, author Sophie Hannah pointed out that if we take ‘grip-lit’ to mean psychological suspense where a woman isn’t just a victim (potentially written by a woman as well), the term accurately describes Rebecca, works by Ruth Rendell and PD James, and Hannah’s own – as well as the likes of Gone Girl, I Let You Go (Clare Mackintosh), Disclaimer (Renee Knight), The Widow (Fiona Barton) and The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins).

But to me, this isn’t what grip-lit means. To me, grip-lit is something that’s about halfway between women’s commercial fiction and a traditional crime novel. It’s commercial fiction that doesn’t necessarily feature a crime, but ends with a big twist or reveal in the same way the typical crime/thriller novel would. Basically, there’s some secret to figure out. It’s dark, but it’s not that dark. Its plot centres on civilians rather than police or other law enforcement professionals. But that’s just what it means to me – and that’s the problem. It has no actual definition, and trying to pin one down is near impossible. As is the case with all genres and subgenres, there’s crossovers and grey areas and exceptions to the rule. (And then there’s the special little snowflakes claiming that they can’t possibly be classified. Yeah, okay…) Even if we did come up with one standard, universally agreed definition – good luck with that – there’s no Genre Police to ensure that everyone uses it in just the right way.

(Side note: I would love that job. Almost as much as I’d love to be employed to stand at the top of security lines at airports to scream at people for standing there, doing nothing, for the last thirty minutes and only now, at the scanner, finally deciding to take off their damn coat. But anyway.)

There’s another problem. It’s like I’m back standing at the front desk in that swanky resort and I’ve just accidentally called a guest a transient to their face. Me calling them that is actually a good thing. It means that they’ll get a nicer room (because they’re paying for it themselves and will spend more time in it), more of my time (because business travellers just want to check in and go as quickly as possible, they’ve work to do) and all the information they need about transport, dining and theme parks that I wouldn’t give them if I thought they were going to be tied up with a conference all day and then obliged to attend corporate social events all night. The term exists for their benefit, even if it doesn’t sound great to their ears – even if, because they once stayed in a fleapit somewhere near East 27th Street and Madison Avenue, they associate the term with something they don’t particularly like.

All these terms – lad-lit (Nick Hornby), sick-lit (The Fault in Our Stars) and, yes, grip-lit – exist, first and foremost, so publishers can shorten the distance between their new releases and us, the readers eagerly looking for our next great read. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. If it works, I say let them make up all the silly terms that they like.

Cruise-lit, anyone?

(c) Catherine Ryan Howard

Catherine Ryan Howard’s debut thriller, Distress Signals, will be published by Corvus/Atlantic on May 5. And yes, some of it takes place on a cruise ship. Find out more on www.catherineryanhoward.com.

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